A candidate for Congress has been charged with misdemeanor assault after allegedly body slamming a political reporter on the eve of his election. Because so many citizens have already voted early, it’s still likely that Republican Greg Gianforte will win the Montana special election today. But looking further ahead, what punishment does he face if he’s convicted for this assault charge?
Montana Code § 45-5-201 states that the punishment for misdemeanor assault is a fine of up to $500 and a jail sentence of up to six months.
Montana’s legal code also makes clear that there are four circumstances under which a person can be found guilty of assault. First, the person purposely or knowingly caused bodily injury to another person. Second, they negligently caused bodily injury to another person using a weapon. Third, they purposely or knowingly made physical contact of an insulting or provoking nature with a person. And fourth, they purposely or knowingly caused “reasonable apprehension of bodily injury” in another person.
In order to be found guilty of misdemeanor assault, then, the accused must have purposely injured the victim, and so causing accidental bodily harm would not count. But how exactly does Montana define “purposely and knowingly”? Well, § 45-2-101 states that purposely means the person has the “conscious object to engage in that conduct or to cause that result.” And knowingly is defined by the fact that the person “is aware that it is highly probable that the result will be caused” by their actions.
The state also defines “bodily injury” as “physical pain, illness, or an impairment of physical condition and includes mental illness or impairment.”
So do Greg Gianforte’s actions qualify? It’s safe to say that he caused bodily injury to reporter Ben Jacobs, as Jacobs was taken away from the scene in an ambulance, being brought to a hospital and receiving an x-ray. While there is no video of the incident, there is audio of it. On the tape, Jacobs is heard asking a question about health care when Gianforte suddenly snaps and attacks him, yelling, “Get the hell out of here! Get the hell out of here!”
In a statement released after the incident, the Greg Gianforte campaign did not deny that this incident took place. Rather, they said that Jacobs was being provocative and was asked to leave. However, in the audio of the incident, Gianforte never asks Jacob to leave.
“After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined,” the statement says, though this also does not happen in the audio recording. “Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground.”
Several other reporters who were present for the incident have backed up Ben Jacobs’ account, including Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna, who said, “…Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him…Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’”
On Wednesday evening, Brian Gootkin, the sheriff of Gallatin County, said that “[t]he nature of the injuries did not meet the statutory elements of felony assault.” However, he said that there was “probable cause to issue a citation to Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault.”
Montana Code § 45-5-202 states that felony assault involves a person purposely or knowingly causing “serious bodily injury” to another person (as opposed to just “bodily injury” in the misdemeanor definition). A person convicted of felony assault in Montana faces up to 20 years in jail and/or a fine of up to $50,000.
One recent instance of a person of authority being charged with misdemeanor assault in Montana came in 2016 when a Montana cop was charged after a man said that the cop “jumped out and came running toward me” and “started beating on my arm.” The man said that his arm hurt for a week afterwards. This cop was cited for assault the next day, and he ended up being found guilty and receiving a deferred imposition of sentence and a $340 fine, according to the Billings Gazette.
Greg Gianforte must appear in Gallatin County Justice Court between now and June 7th.